Urmila Devi lives in Chaitabazaar village which is barely five kilometres from the eastern bank of the Burhi Gandak river. It is located in a particularly flood-prone area of East Champaran in north Bihar. The drinking water quality in this area is poor. The recurrent floods only make it worse.
Much of Chaitabazaar village floods every year during the monsoons, this year being the worst since 2007. Though the central ground water board says that the district’s groundwater is suitable for drinking, it admits that there are certain areas where there are iron and arsenic contamination.
The water is mildly alkaline and is rich in iron in Urmila’s village. “The water quality of my household’s 110-feet deep hand pump is poor and poses problems all the time. The water is dark because of high levels of iron and has a peculiar stench because of bacteriological contamination leading to illnesses every now and then,” says Urmila. Recalling the adverse times faced by her due to lack of safe drinking water, 40-year-old Urmila says, “I did not get safe water at my doorsteps and had to perform the backbreaking task of fetching water from afar. From the wee hours of the morning till afternoon, I was engaged in collecting water and could barely attend to my children.”
In north Bihar, affected by floods every year, overflowing river water poses health problems. Once the river waters recede, however, communicable diseases rise. “Many people die due to waterborne diseases every year, especially flood victims residing in the relief camps. The government’s response of rushing doctors and medical equipment to flood-torn districts to ward off disease outbreaks helps reduce casualties, yet scores of flood victims die of diarrhoea and other crippling illnesses. The relief work and health camps stop as the flood water recedes but people continue to fall sick due to the stagnant water which not just breeds mosquitoes but also pollute groundwater. All kinds of illnesses are prevalent; diarrhoea being the most common owing to the area’s poor water quality,” says Surendra Prasad Gupta of Ajna village in the nearby district of Samastipur.
Biosand filter comes to the rescue
A Gurugram based NGO, Sehgal Foundation saw that poor access to potable water in the villages led people to draw their drinking water from ponds and other unhealthy water holes. They came up with a biosand filter called JalKalp as a response to this. “JalKalp is a low-cost water treatment solution to the problem. A biosand filter that filters water through layers of sand, it offers increased filtration rate and better portability than the conventional models of filters. Besides its appearance, this steel filter adds to the strength, reliability, durability, and portability, making it a reliable source for clean drinking water,” says Lalit Mohan Sharma, director, Adaptive Technologies, Sehgal Foundation, Gurugram.
"We have been studying the enablers and barriers to sustain and scale up household water treatment and safe storage practices. Based on this, we can say that affordable and appropriate household water treatment technologies such as the biosand filter can improve the lives of even the poorest people,” says Dharmendra Singh, assistant programme leader, agricultural development, Sehgal Foundation.
“It was by chance that I attended a village meeting of farmers conducted by Sehgal Foundation. Towards the end of the meeting, they informed us about the newly developed biosand water filtration system called JalKalp. I thought that there is a good chance that this may work and ordered one for my household. The device was installed the very next day and has been working well so far,” says Urmila. “I found that the solution is self-sustainable and does not require any operational, replacement or maintenance cost after installation,” she adds.
Just like most mechanical filters, in JalKalp too, contaminants large enough to be trapped in the pores of the filter are filtered mechanically, while other contaminants stick to the surface of the filter media. Small pieces of a thin copper sheet with a total surface area of six square centimetres are inserted in the drainage layer in order to remove coliform. Jalkalp performs better than its concrete counterparts and has a wider opportunity for application and adoption in different geographical conditions.
Cleaner water, better health
Dharmendra Rai, a teacher from Sedukha village in Samastipur district says that his wife had been suffering from a thyroid disorder for a while and was being treated at Samastipur and Darbhanga. “When Vishnu from Sehgal Foundation approached me for installing Jalkalp at my home, I agreed. My wife was gradually weaned from thyroid medication which she was taking for two years. We realised that drinking pure filtered water is important. Otherwise, the fluoride and chlorine in water can block the iodine receptors in the thyroid,” says Rai.
Umesh Mahato of Sedukha village had been taking medication for a gastrointestinal problem he has been suffering from for the last eight years. He shifted his drinking water source from the 60-ft hand pump to a 250-ft borewell when he came to know that the former was contaminated. The borewell water is slightly better in quality and after filtration through JalKalp, it is safe to drink.
A better water purification technology
“The development of this 4.5 kg filter, offering increased filtration rate and better portability than concrete models was preceded by a study of the shortcomings of conventional biosand filters and we have tried to overcome this. It is effective against E.coli, total coliforms, turbidity, and iron contamination. The filter integrates the germicidal properties of copper with conventional filtration,” says Sharma.
JalKalp can be operated without electricity which is a bonus considering the electricity supply in many villages in Bihar is erratic. “JalKalp is also environment-friendly with minimal carbon footprint and does not require regular replacement of parts. It is not expensive and requires small capital investment from the end user. There is no recurring cost of operation or expensive parts to replace. Most filtration systems use carbon, charcoal or a blend of filter media to help reduce impurities. In Jalkalp, the filtering materials i.e., sand and gravel present in the filter are easily and locally available,” says Singh.
Water quality tests have demonstrated JalKalp’s performance and the organisation is looking to collaborate with entrepreneurs who can adopt a market-based approach to the demand for safe water and sell affordable household filters. This can go a long way in providing safe water to local areas.